EDO-FL-02-06 • OCTOBER 2002
Heritage Spanish Speakers’ Language Learning Strategies
ZENNIA HANCOCK, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, COLLEGE PARK
The learning strategies of language learners have been researched ex-
shown that Latino students are “frequently auditory” learners (Oxford,
tensively. (See, e.g., Brown, 2000; Oxford, 1990; Rubin & Thompson, 1982;
2001, p. 360). While generalizations like these about cultural groups need
Shipman & Shipman, 1985; Stevick, 1976). This research focuses on En-
to be treated with caution, learning style preferences such as preference
glish-speaking students learning a foreign language and on non-English
for group or individual work do need to be considered in designing in-
speakers learning English. To date, there have been no published studies
on the use of language learning strategies by heritage Spanish speakers
Nonnative Spanish Teachers. Many Spanish courses are taught by
studying Spanish. Research is needed on this unique and growing stu-
nonnative speakers of Spanish. Heritage Spanish speakers may not iden-
dent population so that educators can learn how to work more effec-
tify with or respect as a Spanish teacher someone whose native language
tively with them.
is not Spanish. Brown’s (2000) research suggests that empathy—the ca-
This digest describes some of the issues involved in the Spanish lan-
pacity to relate emotionally to someone else—may contribute to the suc-
guage learning experiences of heritage Spanish speakers, the largest popu-
cess of language learners. If Latinos cannot relate emotionally to Anglo
lation of heritage language speakers in the United States. It describes ways
teachers (or to Spanish-speaking teachers from a different country or re-
in which educators can facilitate these students’ language development
gion than the one they associate with), their academic success may be
through a better understanding of their language learning strategies and
suggests areas in which further research is needed.
Heritage Spanish Speakers in Language Classes
To address the issues described above, researchers have suggested the
Spanish-speaking students have been referred to as “native speakers,
following guidelines for teaching heritage Spanish speakers:
quasi-native speakers, residual speakers, bilingual speakers, and home-
• Learn about and show respect for different cultures and dialects. High-
background speakers” (Valdés 1997, p. 13). Those who study Spanish in
light vocabulary choices and grammatical structures for different con-
school often come to formal education with skills in comprehension and
texts and purposes rather than prescribing specific rules for all occasions.
conversation, but the literacy skills of this population vary widely, rang-
Speak, for example, of Southwest, Puerto Rican, or Cuban Spanish rather
ing from extremely fluent to receptive to only partially receptive (Valdés,
than formal and informal Spanish (Villa, 1996).
1997). The degree of oral Spanish proficiency also varies widely among
these students, ranging from native proficiency to what Bills has called
• Base courses on topics that have cultural appeal to heritage Spanish
“disfluency” (1997, p. 267).
speakers (Faltis, 1990).
Traditionally, heritage Spanish speakers have been placed in Spanish
• Observe student behavior in the classroom and identify whether stu-
classes with English speakers learning Spanish as a second language. This
dents benefit most from group or individual work, oral or written lan-
can be problematic. Other students may resent the heritage speakers’
guage exercises, and so forth (Vásquez, 1990).
native-like familiarity with oral language and the appearance that the
• When designing courses, include writing activities (including spelling,
Spanish speakers are studying “a language they already know” (Peyton,
self-editing, transcribing, translating, and journaling), contrastive analy-
Lewelling, & Winke, 2001, p. 1). At the same time, while the Spanish
sis (activities to explore and acknowledge a variety of dialects), culture
speakers may be able to discuss day-to-day topics related to home and
(projects involving research beyond the classroom), and oral skills (class
community, they may have difficulty communicating about more com-
discussions and community work) (Aparicio, 1983, pp. 236-237).
plex topics, such as politics, literature, or careers, and with the mechan-
These suggestions focus on how teachers can teach better rather than
ics of Spanish writing, such as spelling, syntax, and use of accents. This
on how students can take responsibility for their learning. However, teach-
situation is challenging for heritage Spanish speakers and potentially frus-
ers can help students identify their learning habits, preferences, and skills
trating for other students. “Neither the Spanish language needs nor the
in order to help themselves. One way to do this is to make students aware
abilities of either group can be duly or successfully addressed” (Peale,
of their own particular language learning strategies.
1991, p. 448). Increasingly, researchers and educators realize that these
students need courses tailored to their specific needs (Bills, 1997).
Language Learning Strategies
Some Factors to Consider
Oxford (2001) presents six categories of language learning strategies:
cognitive, metacognitive, memory-related, compensatory, affective, and
A number of factors affect the learning of Spanish by native speakers.
social (p. 359). They can be summarized as follows:
Varieties of Spanish. The belief that some dialects of Spanish are in-
Cognitive: practicing and repeating new words; deductive reason-
ferior to a standard or widely accepted form of the language can manifest
ing, translating, analyzing; taking notes, highlighting, summarizing
itself in the attitudes of the teacher, other students, and even the speak-
ers of those dialects. Spanish speakers who encounter negative attitudes
Metacognitive: paying attention, organizing, setting goals and ob-
toward their dialects in the Spanish class may become embarrassed and
jectives, evaluating one’s own performance
reluctant to participate for fear of ridicule or correction. Some Latino
Memory-related: creating mental linkages, such as grouping and plac-
students in university Spanish classes have claimed that because they
ing words in context; applying images and sounds to represent things
spoke non-standard dialects of Spanish, their teachers gave them lower
in memory; structured reviewing; using mechanical techniques, such
grades (Villa, 1996).
as physical response
Cultural Connections. As dialects vary, so do cultures. Previous stud-
Compensatory: selecting a topic for discussion based on one’s knowl-
ies have shown positive correlations between learning styles and ethnic
edge of the language and shaping the discussion to avoid unknown
background (e.g., Vásquez, 1990). For example, some researchers have
vocabulary, guessing at words based on context, using gestures and
found that Latino students learn particularly well in groups rather than
coining words to communicate
by themselves (Griggs & Dunn, 1996). According to Oxford (1990), “His-
Affective: using music or laughter as part of the learning process,
panics seem to use social strategies more than do some other ethnic
rewarding oneself, making positive statements about one’s own
groups” (p. 13). Research on the sensory dimension of learning styles has
progress, discussing feelings
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Social: seeking correction, asking for clarification, working with peers,
issues involved in learning their own language, teach them how to iden-
developing cultural understanding (Oxford 2001, pp. 363-365)
tify and take advantage of the learning strategies they are comfortable
Some strategies are guided by exterior influences—teachers, activities,
with, and expose them to new strategies to enhance their learning.
interactions—and others relate to the student’s personality, motivation,
and knowledge about how to learn.
Oxford’s 1990 publication, Language Learning Strategies: What Every
There is a need for research and practice focused on the language
Teacher Should Know, is designed to make teachers and students aware of
learning strategies of heritage Spanish speakers. Projects that need to be
language learning strategies and the various ways they can be used to
undertaken include the development of language learning scenarios for
facilitate language learning. In one section of the text, Oxford gives 19
heritage Spanish speakers, such as the ones presented in this digest; and
different scenarios describing language learners with specific goals. The
development of a language learning strategy inventory specifically for
reader is to identify which language learning strategies could be used to
heritage Spanish speakers, patterned after Oxford’s (1990) inventories
accomplish the goals. For example:
for English language learners and for English speakers learning other
languages. Researchers need to ascertain whether a certain set of opti-
You are an English-speaking high school student learning Ital-
mal learning conditions may apply specifically to heritage Spanish speak-
ian. You have a good sense of humor and enjoy jokes and car-
ers. Solid research in this area may help teachers better serve
toons. You decide to buy an Italian cookbook. It is about 100
Spanish-speaking students in their classes by teaching them how to
pages long, full of cartoons. You want to read the book, under-
become aware of and responsible for their own learning.
stand the cartoons, and explain some of the cartoons to your
friends who do not know Italian at all. Which language learn-
ing strategies do you need to use? (Oxford, 1990, p. 33)
Aparicio, F. R. (1983). Teaching Spanish to the native speaker at the
For the above scenario, readers might identify the following strate-
college level. Hispania, 66, 232-238.
gies that could be used:
Bills, G. (1997). Language shift, linguistic variation, and teaching Span-
Cognitive: Analyze the language of the text (see how the cartoons
ish to native speakers in the United States. In M. C. Colombi & F. X.
Alarcon (Eds.), La ensenanza del espanol a hispanohablantes: Praxis y
Metacognitive: Set goals (decide how much to learn on your own
teoría (pp. 263-282). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
and when to show the book to your friends)
Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of language teaching and learning (4th ed.).
Memory-related: Place words in context (certain vocabulary will be
White Plains, NY: Longman.
used for cooking)
Faltis, C. (1990). Spanish for native speakers: Freirian and Vygotskian
perspectives. Foreign Language Annals, 2 (2), 117-26.
Compensatory: Select which recipes or cartoons to focus on
Griggs, S., & Dunn, R. (1996). Hispanic-American students and learning
Affective: Use laughter (understand language through the cartoons)
style (ERIC Digest No. EDO-PS-96-4). Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse
Social: Cooperate with peers (include your friends in your learning
on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Re-
production Service No. ED393607) (Also available in Emergency Li-
This activity can be used to teach awareness of language learning strate-
brarian, 23 (2), 11-16.)
gies and ways to use them.
Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should
know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Strategies for Heritage Spanish Speakers
Oxford, R. (2001). Language learning styles and strategies. In M. Celce-
While the scenarios in Oxford’s book are useful to foreign language
Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (3rd ed.).
and ESL teachers and students, none of them involves students learning
Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
their own language. Heritage Spanish speakers might work with scenarios
Peale, C. G. (1991). Spanish for native speakers (and other “native lan-
such as the following:
guages”) in California’s schools: A rationale statement. Hispania, 74,
You are a high school student living in New York City with
your parents, who are from Puerto Rico. They speak Spanish
Peyton, J. K., Lewelling, V. W., & Winke, P. (2001). Spanish for native
with you all the time, but you speak to them in English. You
speakers: Developing dual language proficiency (ERIC Digest No. EDO-
are getting ready to leave home to attend college, where you
FL-01-09). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
want to study advertising. You also want to study Spanish, be-
Linguistics. Retrieved October 17, 2002, from http://www.cal.org/
cause you realize that employers value bilingual employees. You
want to practice reading and writing before you leave for col-
Rubin, J., & Thompson, I. (1982). How to be a more successful language
lege. Which language learning strategies could you use to pre-
learner. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
pare yourself for college Spanish?
Shipman, S., & Shipman, V. C. (1985). Cognitive styles: Some concep-
tual, methodological, and applied issues. Review of Research in Educa-
You are a student at the University of Maryland. You grew up
tion, 12, 229-291.
speaking Spanish with your Salvadoran parents, but you want
Stevick, E. W. (1976). Memory, meaning, and method: Some psychological
to improve your Spanish writing skills. You have a chance to
perspectives on language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury.
do this when your grandmother, who has recently come to the
United States from El Salvador to live with your family, asks
Valdés, G. (1997). The teaching of Spanish to bilingual Spanish-speak-
you to help her write down her childhood memories for you
ing students: Outstanding issues and unanswered questions.††In M.
and her other grandchildren. Which language learning strate-
C. Colombi & F. X. Alarcon (Eds.), La ensenanza del espanol a
gies could you use for this project?
hispanohablantes: Praxis y teoría (pp. 93-101). Boston: Houghton
As well as listing the language learning strategies that would be useful
Vásquez, J. A. (1990). Teaching to the distinctive traits of minority stu-
in these scenarios, heritage Spanish speakers may also develop their own
dents. The Clearing House, 63 (7), 299-304.
scenarios and exchange them with other students. Scenarios might in-
Villa, D. J. (1996). Choosing a “standard” variety of Spanish for the
clude issues such as dialectical varieties of Spanish (and the desire or
instruction of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. Foreign Language
need to learn the prestige variety), expansion of vocabulary knowledge,
Annals, 29 (2), 191-200.
and the pressures associated with achieving improved literacy in one’s
native language. The aim is to increase students’ awareness of the social
This digest was prepared with funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED, OERI, or NLE.
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